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Fatherland

by Nina Bunjevac

An accomplished graphic memoir entwining family secrets with the history of a region wracked by violence, Fatherland is bleak, yet undeniably fascinating.

The book begins in the 1970s, in the small Ontario town of Welland. Bunjevac’s father, Peter, is an exiled Serbian nationalist working with an international terrorist group. Her mother, fearing repercussions from her husband’s activities, barricades her children’s windows with furniture each night. When her anxiety reaches its peak, she smuggles two of her children out of Canada to what was at the time communist Yugoslavia. A few years later, while plotting with members of his terrorist cell to attack an embassy in Toronto, Peter is blown up by an explosive set by rival forces.

FatherlandFatherland charts how Bunjevac’s father came to his end, retracing both the complex geopolitical history that brought him to Canada, and the traumatic circumstances that led to his choosing a path of violence. To unlock the details she must gently prod her mother, or, in Bunjevac’s words, “nudge the floodgates so nonchalantly.” In so doing, she traces her family’s path back and forth from North America to Serbia and Croatia over multiple generations, as they survive the atrocities of the Second World War and the austerity and terror of Tito’s communist rule. Recounting scraps of conversations and gossip around the kitchen table, Bunjevac deftly balances the big historical picture and its stifling effect on a single household.

The artwork is penned in painstaking detail – a blend of pointillism and cross-hatching that borders on photorealistic. Textures and shadows are played for maximum dramatic effect, capturing the sad Slavic faces from the author’s youth, or the blank expression that hangs on her young father. Patterns of imagery from Balkan mythology echo throughout – black birds on a wire; lightning strikes – creating a sense of foreboding that fills every panel with incipient doom.

Inevitably, Bunjevac’s exploration of her father’s past loops back to his grim end. Here, however, she switches to the perspective of her Aunt Mara, the family member who cared most for her father. It’s an unusual but expressive choice that has the metaphorical effect of highlighting the grief felt by all who are victims of history